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Dull and Grey Leadership

In the early 1990s, the satirical series Spitting Image famously characterised the Prime Minister John Major as the grey man. His grey hair from real life was accompanied by his puppet’s grey skin and his domestic life filmed in black and white involved the PM pushing a few peas around his plate and complimenting his wife on the meal. In 2007, as the Labour government planned the transition from the charismatic Tony Blair (sometimes accused of having more spin/style than substance) to the more dour Gordon Brown, a senior party figure was allegedly quoted as saying that ‘the trouble with Gordon is that he is all substance.’

Of course both men had their weaknesses and made their mistakes but in these difficult times of Brexit and Coronavirus what might we give for a little dull and grey leadership - some competence rather than spin and soundbite.

We have been increasingly drawn towards charisma. Whether you agree with their politics or not, messrs Trump, Johnson and Corbyn have personality and a certain level of charisma. Their supporters are devotees and you criticise the man at your peril; they can do no wrong. Notice how wary and reluctant some labour members are to support their new leader. Notice how difficult leadership was for Theresa May with the more charismatic Mr Johnson making mischief behind the scenes. It’s not just politics, think about the businesses you work in and some of the charismatic individuals who seem to climb the corporate ladder with far more ease than they should.

That’s not to say that charismatic leadership is a bad thing in itself. The Greek root of charisma implies that it is a ‘gift of grace‘ and it is. I have worked for various leaders in education, various senior examiners and in church, various pastors and ministers. I can think of a handful of such charismatic individuals I have had the privilege of working with. It truly is fantastic if someone can energise and inspire you, but they need to be able to also back that up with solid competence – the substance to go with the style.

If in rare cases someone has both charisma and genuine skill/competence then happy days but if I had to choose between the two, I’d choose the dull grey competence over empty charisma every time. 3 thoughts on the difference come to mind

  1. Popular and easy vs difficult and right. One way that dull and grey leadership may present itself is in the choice between doing what is popular and what ultimately is right. In his criticism of democracy Plato likens the general public to a large and powerful animal. The trainer learns to recognise the moods of the animal and works on how to keep the beast happy. Yet as Plato points out, the important question is in fact what is good for the animal. No one asks what is best for the animal. We just want to keep people happy. As Michael Gove said ‘we have all had enough of experts.’ One of the virtues of the dull grey leader is that they don't worry about chasing popularity. They are not afraid to take the right path rather than the popular path.

  2. Quick apparent wins versus long term. Another consequence of dull grey leadership is that it focuses on the long term. Short-term popularity and success is great but the focusing on the short-term can be chaotic and can destabilise an institution. About 10 years ago in education it became very popular for so called super-heads to take charge of schools. Typically they would bring in radical changes, there would be a high staff turnover, there would be good GCSE results one year, and often chaos the next. They would move on after 2-3 years and the school would be back to square 1. Thankfully this trend seems to be passing. If we are going to build anything we have to recognise the importance of building slowly and carefully. It isn’t exciting or sexy - it’s dull and sometimes grey. Yet in the words of the African proverb ‘if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together.’

  3. Binary versus Nuance: grey leadership recognises that there are shades of grey rather than black and white. It has an eye for detail. It recognises that both people and situations are complicated. It is all too easy to put people into two boxes - heroes and villains - but life is not like that. Even the politician we idolise makes mistakes; even our most disliked colleague will at times do things right. As people, we are complex - we are varying shades of grey, we have our imperfections. Recognising our own dark grey areas and when others have lighter areas is important. An insecure leader sees reliance on others as weakness, a dull grey leader recognises that other lights in the room are at times brighter. Similarly situations are also rarely black and white or clear cut. Each one is subtly different. Winston Churchill famously insisted on information being only one side of A4 but you can bet that there were dull and grey leaders in the background making sure the summary he got was right. Detail can be tedious but important.

There is probably a catchier title than ‘dull grey leadership‘ but those who recognise the phenomenon I am trying to describe won’t worry too much. After all who cares about being popular?

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